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The Magic Begins to Fade
Ponorogo, Indonesia
By ZAMIRA LOEBIS Ponorogo

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Homosexuality is a delicate topic in conservative, Islamic Indonesia. But until recently that wasn't the case in Ponorogo, a small town east of Yogyakarta. One of the more prestigious occupations in the area has traditionally been that of warok, a man believed to have mystical powers who stages ritual dances in order to bring good fortune to the community. His dancers were once attractive boys aged 10 to 16. The warok himself maintained his mystical powers by sleeping with the boys, who had their own title: gemblak.

But the warok of Ponorogo are becoming a thing of the past. As modern times bring a new openness to gays in Indonesia's big cities, they have almost shut down one of the country's longest-running homosexual traditions. Warok still live and work in Ponorogo, but they're not encouraged to live with gemblak anymore. Girls have replaced boys in the ritual dances, which themselves have evolved from meaningful rites into gaudy exhibitions for visiting tourists. Nowadays the warok is any man who has enough money to keep a dance troupe. "First they brought in the bright lamps," mourns Kasni Gunopati, 71, one of the oldest warok in town. "Then the radio, and now the television. Nowadays boys are ashamed to be known as a warok's gemblak."


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While their distinctive culture includes colorful marriage, their riches are from harvesting scrap metal

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It used to be a very grand honor. In the purest form of the tradition, a troupe of 60 artists walk in procession to a town or a meeting to bring luck. The most important figure is a dancer sporting an elaborate tiger mask, weighing up to 60 kg and secured between his clenched teeth. But it was the gemblak, a dozen or so, who always led the procession. The tradition springs from the story of Prince Jaka Bagus, a ruler from the Ponorogo region who maintained his steeliness by abstaining from food and intercourse with women. Instead, he had a harem of gemblak.

In the era of former President Suharto, such offbeat local customs became embarrassing to the bureaucracy, and the people of East Java are known for their religiosity. That double pressure has done in the old ways. Girls lead the procession now and many gemblak have packed up and joined the gay community in Jakarta. A few remain, though they now call themselves "foster sons." Gunopati, who had eight such partners, thinks something has been lost. "A gemblak was a lover and a symbol of honor," he recalls. "The more handsome he was, the prouder I was of him, and the more prowess I got from him." Not only Gunopati but a tradition that has lasted for centuries may not have much strength left.

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